Detroit, MI – In Detroit this past weekend, a group of Michian Democrats got to compare and question their party's prospective candidates for governor.
About 80 people paid $30 apiece for tickets to a breakfast fundraiser that featured state representative Alma Wheeler Smith, state House Speaker Andy Dillon and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.
Bernero served in the Legislature before being elected mayor. He pins much of the blame for the state's problems with this generation of lawmakers - and Dillon in particular.
"It's stunning that in this time of crisis, that people at the state Capitol would be engaged in business as usual, or even typical political gamesmanship," Bernero said.
Bernero joked about his temper that was made nationally famous as he went on TV last year to defend the auto industry.
"There's an anger out there," Bernero continued. "Some people think there's an anger in here. (chuckles.) You know I am called the Angry Mayor, and I am a little angry, but it's nothing like the anger that is out there all across the state of Michigan that people are feeling.
"And I'll tell you I'm not for the status quo in Lansing," said House Speaker Andy Dillon. "There needs to be tremendous change there."
Dillon defended the job he's done as the House leader. But he says there was nothing he could do about Republican resistance to solutions other than cutting the budget and that led to stalemate and two government shutdowns on his watch. But Dillon says he would not be running if he did not see a path to reversing Michigan's fortunes.
"We need to invest in infrastructure," he said. "We need to invest in the state so that we can compete in the 21st century. All our problems, all our woes are fixable, but it's going to take leadership and it's going to take change that makes us all uncomfortable. Anytime you talk about change, people get nervous, but the change is coming."
Dillon, like Bernero, has been cool to the idea of tax increases to solve Michigan's budget troubles, although neither will rule them out after the state enacts cost-saving reforms.
Dillon is from the conservative side of his party, and took quite a few questions regarding his Democratic credentials. Dillon has tangled with state employee and teachers unions, but says his record is 90 percent pro-labor. He is opposed to abortion and embryonic stem cell research, but would not actively seek to alter the state's current policies on those issues. And, while he does not favor gay marriage, he is for civil unions and allowing same-sex partners to share health benefits.
State representative Alma Wheeler Smith left no doubt which wing of her party she's from. She called for expanding the sales tax and a higher income tax on wealthier taxpayers. She says that would fund schools and early childhood education and guarantee free college tuition for every high school graduate.
"I know how to use the budget," Smith said. "I know how to use the public policy and I will be your next governor. I don't care if people like me. (laughter) I will do what it takes to turn Michigan around."
Smith says she'd also like to see the state reverse its ban on affirmative action in school admissions and public employment. And she says if the Legislature does not cooperate and there's gridlock, she would engage the public and lead petition drives.